Defending Rights & Dissent Policy & Legislative Counsel Chip Gibbons wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post on why the left cannot embrace the FBI. Published on Monday, October 22, 2018, Gibbons noted that “some in the anti-Trump ‘resistance’ have begun to embrace the security state. The FBI, once the bête noire of progressives who saw it as a threat to civil liberties, now boasts more support among Democrats than Republicans.”
Gibbons argued, as he so often has, that this is extremely misguided. The FBI cannot be the antidote to Trump, as Trump and the FBI share the same worldview. He wrote:
Much has been said about Comey’s role in electing Trump, particularly in his announcement that the FBI had reopened the Hillary Clinton email investigation. But what’s never asked is what role the FBI played in creating fertile ground for a Trump-like figure in the first place. By treating American Muslims as a fifth column, African American protests against racism as a threat to police and dissent as a potential precursor to terrorism, the FBI contributes to a political atmosphere that a demagogue such as Trump can take advantage of. Before warming up to the FBI, the left should remember the threat that the bureau has posed to our democracy.
Of course, the FBI’s problem runs much deeper than any one director or administration. Gibbons has written extensively about the history of social movements and political surveillance. As he explains in The Washington Post
The FBI has always targeted dissent. This doesn’t just include historical acts, such as spying on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or rounding up socialists and anarchists during the Palmer Raids. In recent memory, the FBI has used its counterterrorism authorities to spy on Occupy Wall Street and the antiwar group School of the Americas Watch. FBI agents have reportedly shown up to interview students involved with pro-Palestine activism and Standing Rock “water protectors.” In the run-up to the 2016 Republican National Convention, FBI agents visited Black Lives Matter and Occupy Cleveland activists to ask whether they planned to protest the convention and reportedly suggested they stay home. After immigration agents detained an Occupy ICE activist in San Antonio, FBI agents allegedly began questioning him about his fellow protesters.
These should be viewed as part of a continuum, not isolated incidents. We know from congressional investigations, such as the one conducted by Sen. Frank Church in 1975, the type of domestic political policing the FBI engaged in before the 1970s. And we know from a late-1980s Senate Intelligence Committee investigation that just a few years after the reforms of the 1970s, the FBI was spying on opponents of U.S. policy on Central America. Thanks to a Justice Department inspector general report, public-records requests and reports from activists themselves, we know that throughout the George W. Bush and Obama years, the FBI monitored activists from environmentalists to peace campaigners, often under the guise of counterterrorism. Taken together, this amounts to a decades-long pattern of politically motivated surveillance that runs counter to democratic norms.
If you’re like us, you’re deeply disturbed by the rehabilitation of the FBI. Yes, we need to call out and oppose Trump’s assaults on civil liberties, but we can do that without praising one of the greatest violators of civil liberties in US history.
Defending Rights & Dissent isn’t backing off the FBI. For decades we’ve continuously and meticulously documented the FBI’s bad acts. We use this information to educate the public and policymakers alike that these continued abuses of First Amendment rights are a threat.
As one of the few organizations that remains both critical of Trump’s policies and continues to monitor the FBI’s war on dissent, our voice is more vital now than ever.